Neil Hicks replies to criticism in Al-Monitor on Egypt’s post Morsi human rights situation

February 12, 2014

Howe complex the situation in post-Morsi Egypt is can be illustrated by the letter sent to Al-Monitor by Neil Hicks, one of the most experienced international human rights workers to be found today. As a member of the independent US-based Working Group on Egypt he responds to Wael Nawara’s criticism of the this Working Group’s recommendations on US policy toward Egypt, published on 4 February. Neil Hicks – who works for Human Rights First – in his reply of 7 February neatly outlines the views from an international human rights perspective, under the title: “The US Working Group is right on Egypt”:One of the most perplexing aspects of the months of instability in Egypt that have followed the removal of President Mohammed Morsi from office on July 3, 2013, is the number of prominent Egyptian liberals who have shown themselves to have a somewhat selective commitment to liberal principles, such as a belief in the legitimacy of elected leaders, and universal respect for basic freedoms and the rule of law.

A piece on Al-Monitor’s Egypt Pulse published on Feb. 4 suggests that Wael Nawara may fall into this category. Nawara accuses the members of the Working Group on Egypt, of which I am a member, of providing the “wrong advice” to US President Barack Obama in its Jan. 28 letter. Nawara notes that the Working Group raised “valid criticisms” of the Egyptian government’s policies since the removal of President Morsi on July 3, but he claims that we have failed to set “these things in the larger context.”

I work for a human rights organization, and have been involved with promoting human rights in countries around the world for over 30 years. This complaint sounds very familiar to me. Governments and those who support them always claim that they are beset by special difficulties, or particular contexts, which excuse them from applying universally accepted human rights principles. I have learned to be skeptical of such claims, and see no reason why the military-backed interim Egyptian government should be given a pass. Human rights standards apply to them, too.

Nawara makes a series of serious allegations against the Muslim Brotherhood and its leadership: that they were plotting “to cause the state to collapse” after July 2013; to “arm and organize thousands of mujahedeen” in Egypt; and “giving safe haven to terrorists in Sinai.” Some of these accusations may well be true. It would have been helpful if Egyptian prosecutors had built cases for criminal prosecutions of individuals accused of such crimes with careful attention to the rights of the accused and the credibility of the evidence against them. Regrettably, this has not happened. Indiscriminately rounding up thousands of supporters and alleged supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood with scant regard for due process rights; initiating what appear to be politically motivated show trials against President Morsi and other senior Brotherhood leaders; and clamping down on all expressions of support for the former president, however peaceful, will do nothing to build a credible case that the Muslim Brotherhood and President Morsi were indeed involved in criminal conspiracies. Such measures do undermine the credibility of the judiciary and build a sense of victimhood and injustice among Brotherhood sympathizers that will make future social peace in Egypt more difficult to achieve.

Nawara does not mention the excessive force used to break up the Rabia al-Adawiya encampment on Aug. 14 and the damage that this most serious incident of political violence in Egypt’s recent history will do to efforts to restore stability. The fact that shooting protesters has now become a common method of crowd control will only add to grievances that could lead to further retaliatory violence.

Nawara states that the Working Group “assumes” the Egyptian government “is harsh and repressive.” We do not assume; we give specific examples of incidents of repression. The fact that some, many or “most” Egyptians, as Nawara asserts, support these tough measures does not make them lawful, moral or wise.

Nawara seems to accuse the Working Group of promoting ideas and holding views that were not expressed in our letter, and that I do not espouse. I am not a supporter of “stimulating creative chaos to reshape the Middle East,” for example, or of “granting terrorists, or their allies, control of a country like Egypt,” and, the letter did not say that the constitutional referendum was a “sign of repression.” We did point out the irony of celebrating the adoption of a constitution that upholds basic rights and freedoms while the authorities brazenly disregarded those very same rights and freedoms before and after the vote.

Nawara is correct that US aid to Egypt is only a small fraction of the country’s GDP, but the symbolic weight of the United States giving its approval to the Egyptian government’s policies by certifying that it is “taking steps to support a democratic transition” is much greater than that. That is why the Egyptian government is making efforts to convince US policymakers, in the face of much evidence to the contrary, that it is on a democratic path. My organization, Human Rights First, believes that the United States government best advances its interests by promoting universal values of human rights in its relations with other countries, and especially with key allies, like Egypt. Certifying that progress toward democracy exists, when plainly it does not, would undermine the credibility of the United States as a global leader on human rights. Far from leading to stability in Egypt, the repression that Nawara condones, risks having the opposite effect. Egypt’s own recent history provides ample evidence that authoritarianism produces neither stability, nor sustainable development.

As we stated in our letter, “[S]ince the events of 2011, the populace is more mobilized, more involved in politics, and more divided than ever. In these circumstances, pluralistic democratic institutions, and an opportunity for freedom of speech and assembly, will be necessary to allow citizens to struggle peacefully to resolve those divisions through compromise and democratic decision making.” That is the democratic path that we are urging the US government to encourage the Egyptian government to follow. I believe that such policies would serve the best interests of Egypt and of the United States, and would provide the best chance of Egypt avoiding the catastrophic possibility of a descent into long-term instability that we all wish to avoid.

(Neil Hicks is a member of the Working Group on Egypt. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of other members of the group.)

The US Working Group is right on Egypt – Al-Monitor: the Pulse of the Middle East.

Wael Nawara’s letter is to be found here:

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